(Feature image courtesy: Marshall Athletics)
By JOE McFARLAND
The sense of community around Huntington, West Virginia and Marshall University isn’t lost on Peter Hutzal.
The plaque and memorial garden at Fairfield Stadium, the granite cenotaph at the Spring Hill Cemetary and the fountain at the Memorial Student Center are among the daily reminders of the tragedy the community dealt with in 1970.
A total of 75 passengers and crew, including members of the Thundering Herd football team, coaches and fans, were killed when Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed into a hill just short of the Tri-State Airport.
More than 47 years later, Hutzal walks around the campus and community with an appreciation for how everyone comes together.
“People buy into their sports here,” Hutzal observed. “It’s a smaller school, smaller community kind of thing. They really support their sports here. It’s awesome to be a part of.”
The Calgary product is a sophomore shortstop with the Thundering Herd baseball team. He’s used to the small community environment, having spent most of his teen years in Okotoks, first with the Dawgs Academy, then graduating to the Western Major Baseball League’s Dawgs for the last couple of summers.
After stops with Washington State and Iowa Western, he settled on Marshall University.
“I visited a bunch of big schools and saw the big atmospheres, but I got over that after high school,” Hutzal told Alberta Dugout Stories. “It’s all cool and all – the flashy stuff – but you want to be somewhere you’re going to play.”
The school has a population of around 15,000, while Huntington’s total population sits at over 48,000. It’s a familiar feeling to Okotoks, where the population sits at about 29,000.
“Walking around campus and everyone recognizes you as an athlete, it’s pretty special,” Hutzal said. “A lot of people are connected and everyone knows everyone. It’s kind of fun that way.”
Sports have been in Hutzal’s DNA since he can remember swinging a baseball bat for the first time when he was barely old enough to walk. Growing up in Calgary, he played baseball and hockey. As he headed into his teens, he needed to make a choice.
“I picked baseball,” Hutzal recalls. “I just loved the sport a little more. I was a little better at it at that age and just took off with it after that.”
He eventually found himself playing at the Dawgs Academy in Okotoks, starting off as a catcher, but eventually moved his way to shortstop, thanks to an injury to fellow alum Matt Lloyd.
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“His arm was hurt and that was when they switched me over to play shortstop,” Hutzal said. “I was kind of filling that hole and once he (Lloyd) graduated, I just kind of stayed with it and ended up keeping that position for a while.”
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Hutzal admits it didn’t come easy, as he was “really bad at it” for the first few months.
“I really worked at it,” Hutzal continued. “The coaches in Okotoks were great. The extra work and the unbelievable support I was getting was amazing. They really pushed me.”
The work paid off, as he was able to represent Alberta on several occasions, which he called incredible. In grade 10, he got the call to Canada’s Junior National Team, which had him over the moon.
“The initial moment when I got to represent Canada and put that name across my chest, that’s something every kid dreams of,” Hutzal beamed. “I was beyond blessed. It’s pretty special and I’ll always keep that close to my heart.”
OKOTOKS AND BEYOND
While playing with the Dawgs Academy, Hutzal had his eye on the Western Major Baseball League contingent playing at Seaman Stadium.
“When I first saw that field when I was 12 years old, I thought that was where you played once you made it,” Hutzal said. “I got the chance to play when I was 16 and 17, when I was still in high school.”
He calls the experience of playing in what he considers his hometown field “pretty amazing.”
“It was butterflies in my stomach,” he continued. “It was pretty crazy stepping out there on opening day to a few thousand people. It was pretty crazy.”
Hutzal quickly became a fan favourite, not only for his talent but his tenacity and work ethic. He also has a gift for gab on the field, something both teammates and opponents notice.
“I was always a younger kid playing with older guys,” Hutzal reflected. “You gotta do something to separate yourself, especially when you’re not playing your best.”
He hopes his attitude and chatter helps keep his teammates going, amidst the constant ups and downs of the game. As he gets older, he feels he has a responsibility to be a role model for the younger players around him, as he dealt with the same kinds of struggles.
“Always playing as hard as you can, you got nothing to lose, it could be your last game and you never know what’s going to happen,” Hutzal concluded. “I’m always going to play that way.”
WE ARE MARSHALL
Every great sports movie has a defining pre-game speech. One that invokes a feeling that the underdog can overcome the odds, no matter the dire circumstances.
In the 2006 biopic “We Are Marshall,” the team stops at the site where several players and coaches of the Marshall University football team as well as fans were buried following the 1970 tragedy. Coach Jack Lengyel (played by Matthew McConaughey) stands before his new team just before they are set to play Xavier University in their first home game.
“They’re bigger, faster, stronger, they’re more experienced and, on paper, they’re just better and they know it, too,” the coach preached. “But I want to tell you something they don’t know: they don’t know your heart. I do. I’ve seen it.”
When speaking with those who know and watch Hutzal, it’s his heart that has been most endearing.
He is being rewarded for all of his work, as he led the Fighting Herd with a .438 average through the first six games of the season, although all of his hits have been singles. He also had a couple of stolen bases and just one error in the field.
Hutzal knows he usually starts slow, so this is a good sign.
“It’s giving me a good idea on what the year’s going to bring,” he smiled.
Hutzal and the Thundering Herd are in Boone, N.C. this weekend for a series with Appalachian State. While not ruling out a return to Okotoks this summer, he has also earned the interest of some summer league teams south of the border.